Opal Contagion Box Set
Book 1: Opal Smoke
Book 2: Opal Slayer
Book 3: Opal Storm
OPAL CONTAGION 3-BOOK BOX SET: THE COMPLETE SERIES
Copyright 2020 Stephanie Fazio
Published 2020 by Stephanie Fazio
This book is available in print at most online retailers.
Cover design: Keith Tarrier
The Opal Contagion Series is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual events, places, incidents, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved.
Edition License Notes
Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy from their favorite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.
ISBN 978-1-951572-15-0 (e-book)
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TABLE OF CONTENTS
About the Author
Books by Stephanie Fazio
To Andrew, my soulmate
1 YEAR EARLIER
Every man, woman, and child in Lagonia had turned out for the momentous occasion. Councilmen, courtiers, and soldiers emptied out of the palace. All the merchants had returned from their travels abroad in time for the celebration. Aside from the ones unlucky enough to be on duty, the men and women who made up the strongest army on the continent mingled with all the other Lagonians crowding the cobbled streets.
It was a true mark of the day’s importance that everyone in the empire had been up since early morning, primping and preparing. As a rule, Lagonians were not early risers.
Everyone was dressed in their finest, with the latest fashion trends on full display. Rubies, sapphires, and emeralds gleamed at women’s throats, often simultaneously. Ears and fingers sparkled from the flawless diamonds adorning them. The whisper of silk trailed in the ladies’ wakes, and there was the smart clip of polished dragonhide boots that followed in the men’s. Children wore garlands of fresh flowers and strings of pearls so long the gemstones dragged on the ground behind them.
Everyone was making their way to the Golden Bridge, which was, in fact, made out of solid gold. The Golden Bridge stretched across the river that served as one of the natural barriers between Lagonia and the world beyond. For generations, the only ones who made use of the bridge were the merchants who risked their lives every time they stepped onto the other side of the river, and the hundred archers who kept outsiders from setting foot on Lagonia territory.
Trumpeters on the bridge blew out clear melodies. Singing and laughter filled the streets. Children wove through the crowd, tossing lumps of silver and sapphires the size of their heads to one another as the adults scolded them good-naturedly. Neighbors greeted each other, and lovers shared secret smiles as the merry crowd was swept toward the bridge.
Not even a single cloud dared make an appearance on this day. The sun shone down from a perfectly blue sky. The air was comfortably warm, but not over-humid. It was an especially beautiful day in the only empire that was blessed with temperate weather in all seasons. The mountains on two sides of Lagonia and the ocean on another protected the empire from the extreme weather that plagued the other lands. Lagonia weather, as was the case for everything else in the empire, was idyllic.
The scent of expensive perfumes and colognes mixed with the other appealing aromas filling the streets. The promise of spiced wine, sizzling meat, and fried pastries wafted through the streets as cooks and slaves prepared for the evening’s festivities. Pixies fluttered overhead, sagging under the weight of party invitations their masters had bid them deliver.
People swallowed from vials containing luminescent liquid—potions purchased from the witches and warlocks in the Insorsil Kingdom for exorbitant prices that would help them enjoy the coming festivities all the better.
After swallowing a bright purple potion, one woman’s nose shrunk to half its prior size, and her short hair transformed into sleek, raven waves. A man who drank from another vial grew in height as his potbelly flickered out of existence. With his lips still stained green, he approached a woman who was too beautiful not to be under the magic of her own Insorsil illusion.
Lagonians valued beauty and pleasure above all else, and their empire was well-equipped for delivering all that was needed for both…at least, for those who could afford it.
It would be an understatement to say Lagonians were fond of celebrating. They used any excuse to throw a banquet or a dance. But not a single Lagonian alive could recall an occasion as worthy of commemorating as the event about to take place.
Today, for the first time in over a hundred years, Lagonians could travel beyond their borders without fear of contracting the deadly opal contagion.
Merchants and their families were returning from the other side of the Golden Bridge, where they had witnessed the ceremonial burning of the quarantine village. For over a hundred years, the merchants had risked their lives every time they traveled to Insorsil to trade Lagonian jewels and gold for magic. On their return to Lagonia, they had to endure a month-long quarantine to ensure they hadn’t been infected with the contagion. Now, that was all over. Like death from opal contagion, the need for quarantine was a thing of the past.
For the first time, Lagonians didn’t need to dread encountering one of the Extended…survivors of opal contagion. These carriers of the disease all had the defining characteristics of a strange, shimmery glow to their skin that was reminiscent of opals, orange-rimmed eyes, and burnt orange hair. And of course, no one could forget the inhuman abilities that came with these unfortunate-looking carriers of the opal contagion.
Lagonia had been protected by its geographic insulation when opal contagion first broke out. As other empires fell to the deadly disease, Lagonia continued on more or less as it had before, accumulating riches and trading them for the magic that fascinated and amused them.
But Lagonians were tired of isolation. They were tired of waiting months for the latest charms and potions to arrive from Insorsil, and for the latest furs and silks to be delivered from across the sea.
Slavers were already packing their supplies and making ready to cross the Golden Bridge as soon as darkness fell, and the guards could be convinced to look away from their illegal activities. The slavers rubbed their hands together and talked in hushed voices about the Extended they would capture and bring back to Lagonia.
All the leaders on this side of the sea had signed an anti-slavery treaty some years back, but slavers were convinced that law would more often be overlooked than enforced when it came to the Extended. There was no limit to the amount the wealthiest Lagonians would pay for Extended slaves now that no one in the empire needed to fear infection.
A joyous cry went up from the crowd as the Emperor’s fire-breathing gold dragon sailed overhead. The hundred archers on the Golden Bridge shooed citizens back, clearing a place for the two-ton dragon to set down in the center of the bridge.
It was the new emperor’s first public appearance since his father, the previous Emperor Jaikon, had been found murdered in his own throne room only a week ago. The murder had come as a shock, but it was the Lagonian way to look beyond tragedy and unpleasantness. The best medicine for a grieving people was feasting and revelry. Life was too short to spend it lamenting what could not be changed, as the deceased emperor no doubt would have counseled them. Thus, today would be a day to celebrate the empire’s gains, rather than to shed tears over what it had lost.
Everyone waited to see how the late Emperor’s son, Jaikon, Jr., would conduct himself on this day. It was customary to wait a year after an emperor’s death to officially crown his successor, but the twenty-year-old standing on the bridge was by all rights the new leader of Lagonia. Jaikon, Jr. was now the ruler of the empire whose wealth exceeded that of all the other lands put together.
Jaikon dismounted from his father’s—now his—dragon. No one could deny that, already, the young man looked the part of an emperor. He was adorned in black and gold, Lagonia’s official colors. His gold cape was studded with black diamonds that winked in the sunlight. Jaikon’s eyes, known to be a pale, icy blue, had been Insorsiled to appear as deep blue as the sky overhead. A gold circlet rested atop his head. It was a breach of tradition, which dictated that no crown be worn until the official ceremony in a year’s time.
Jaikon had a reputation for being an impatient and ambitious child, and it seemed the almost-grown man was no different.
Jaikon looked nothing like his father. The previous emperor had been olive-skinned and dark-haired. His son had inherited his mother’s pale skin and golden hair. He couldn’t be called handsome, exactly, but there was something undeniably striking about the Emperor-to-be.
Citizens craned their necks to catch a glimpse of him. The rumor at court was that Jaikon had walked into the throne room, seen the blood from his father staining the floor, and collapsed in grief. But talk among his closest advisors was that Jaikon had called a meeting that very night to discuss changes in his father’s longstanding tax laws.
Jaikon took the glowing orange stick a guard offered him, held it to his throat, and began to speak. The Emperor-to-be’s voice, amplified with Insorsil magic, extended to the far reaches of the crowd.
“Citizens of Lagonia,” he boomed. “Today, I am proud to announce that our collective dream of immunity to opal contagion has been achieved.”
There were cheers and applause.
“I will not say more about it, as the cause of our newfound immunity is a secret known only to myself and my most trusted advisors. While I do not wish to keep secrets from my subjects, I know you all can appreciate how this particular secret is imperative.”
The citizens murmured among themselves. Curiosity about the immunity ate at them, even if they knew it was prudent for their young leader to keep the knowledge quiet. After all, if the source of their people’s immunity to opal contagion became known, there’d be nothing to stop Lagonia’s enemies from destroying it, thereby leaving its citizens susceptible to the disease once again. There was no shortage of leaders clamoring to take control of the bountiful empire and seize the riches that belonged to its people.
Lagonians desired freedom from their confinement more than they craved satisfaction for their curiosity. Besides, Lagonians were not good secret-keepers. Gossip flowed as freely as the golden nuggets that were Lagonia’s lowest denomination of currency.
It was enough to know they were finally safe from the poison that ran through the Extended people’s veins. The Extended would no longer be able to terrorize the rest of the world, infecting people and using their inhuman abilities with impunity.
“Now, we can come and go as we please,” Jaikon continued.
The one-hundred archers who were stationed on the Golden Bridge day and night lowered their weapons in perfect synchronization. The archers had been there to protect Lagonia from the outside world for three generations, ensuring anyone who might be infected never set foot on the bridge. They would remain to police all who entered and left Lagonia, but now, their presence was more for show than to guard against any real threat. The Lagonians were safe. They were free.
Now, the Extended would know what it was like to fear for their lives.
“We will show no mercy. We are Lagonians, and we bow to no one.”
The crowd cheered as a burst of black and gold sparks erupted in the sky overhead. As everyone watched, the flaming sparks rearranged themselves in the sky, forming into letters that were alternating black and gold. When they stopped moving, “Emperor Jaikon” was written across the sky for all to see. The court advisors exchanged meaningful glances as they swatted at the wild tree fairies who had flown from the Insorsiled forest to see what all the fuss was about.
Only time would reveal what kind of a leader the Emperor-to-be would become. His tutors spoke of his cleverness and love of battles of wit. The fighting masters described his ruthlessness and unconventional techniques that compensated for his average skill with a sword. Court advisors whispered about the discord that had existed between the late Emperor and his son in all matters relating to foreign affairs.
Perhaps, under his rule, the Lagonians would see their wealth and prestige grow even beyond what had already been achieved.
The only ones who weren’t smiling were Lagonia’s Chief Assassin and his entourage. They stood on the Golden Bridge beside the Emperor. The three men who were always seen in the assassin’s company wore the uniform of the Emperor’s guard: dragonhide jackets and boots, and no fewer than a dozen weapons strapped to their person. The Chief Assassin wore simple black. There was no hint of the dragonhide that protected the rest of his soldiers from arrowheads and blades. He was also bare of weapons, except for an unadorned dagger. The four men’s faces were stoic as they stared straight ahead. Their expressions revealed nothing.
Lagonia’s Chief Assassin was just a boy himself—barely nineteen. He had been promoted to the role by the previous emperor. The appointment had caused quite a stir. The coveted position was outranked only by the emperor, who filled the role of Commander of the army. Convention dictated that the appointment should have gone to the emperor’s heir and only legitimate son. Still, none of the emperor’s advisors had questioned the decision to promote the emperor’s bastard son, instead. The boy was inarguably the best candidate. His guardian, the ruthless and taciturn Master Interrogator, had taught the boy well.
In the last six months since he’d taken on his new role as Chief Assassin, Rhetteman Loniger—Rhett, as he was known to the men and women soldiers under his command—had dispatched the emperor’s enemies in Lagonia with a brutal efficiency. He commanded a great deal of respect among the soldiers, and a great deal of sighing among the young ladies at court.
Now, the young assassin would have a chance to really prove his worth. He would be tested against Extended, whose superhuman talents made them more dangerous than even the giant lords he was rumored to have fought and dispatched—without assistance.
“Forward, my faithful soldiers,” Jaikon called, signaling to the assassins.
The crowd parted as the small retinue of men marched toward the four saddled dragons that waited for them at the end of the bridge. They were prime specimens of the famed Lagonia army. Their strength was apparent in every flex of their muscles and stomp of their boots.
As the Chief Assassin and his men passed, women in the crowd threw flowers and silk handkerchiefs at them. Whatever thrill these men felt at being selected for this highest of honors was hidden behind faces trained to be expressionless.
“Rhetteman Loniger,” the Emperor-to-be boomed. “Bring me back a dozen Extended heads.”
The stoic young Chief Assassin, the deadliest man in all of Lagonia, turned and saluted his Emperor.
The crowd roared, shouting for Extended blood.
Only Jaikon would hold an execution and an enthronement on the same day, Rhett thought.
Everything about today felt wrong, starting with his uniform. Rhett was wearing his ceremonial black-and-gold suit. It was too tight, and the black diamonds sewn into the fabric clicked together with his every movement. Rhett itched to change into the simple and silent clothes he wore as Lagonia’s Chief Assassin. But his normal clothes weren’t up to the pomp and circumstance of an enthronement, at least as far as the new Emperor was concerned.
Jaikon had effectively been ruling for the last year, but today, his reign would become official.
They were all standing on the cliff overlooking the glittering sea on Lagonia’s northern border. The wind coming off the water smelled of salt. Jaikon’s gold cape snapped behind him as he stood, flanked by his Master Interrogator on one side and Rhett on the other, and faced the executioner’s platform. The councilman now climbing the stairs on wobbling legs would stand on the platform while his crimes were announced. He would be beheaded, and then his body would be tossed over the cliff to join all of Lagonia’s other dead.
Rhett had seen enough bodies tossed over the cliff to know he wouldn’t be able to hear the splash when the corpse hit the water. The cliff was too high and the wind too loud. There was something unsettling about not knowing when the body broke the surface. Rhett kept his breathing even as he imagined his own body’s weightlessness and the crash of water against his bare skin as he himself was tossed over the cliff.
It wasn’t a peaceful image…fish devouring innards and flesh, currents separating the bones one by one…. Cold, dark water.
Rhett wasn’t the only one with these unpleasant thoughts. He felt Stone’s tension even though they were separated by the new Emperor. No one else would have noticed. Anyone who looked at either Rhett or Stone would see Lagonia’s Chief Assassin and Master Interrogator, and nothing more. But Rhett knew his mentor and former guardian better than anyone alive. Stone’s wife and son had been thrown over the cliff twenty years ago, and Rhett didn’t think Stone would ever be able to stand in this place without remembering their deaths.
Jaikon wanted to draw out the councilman’s suffering, which was why he requested the enthronement take place before the execution.
Rhett watched as one of Emperor’s advisors lowered the crown onto Jaikon’s head. Jaikon spoke oaths, and the crowd whooped and applauded.
Jaikon was talking about how much his father, the previous emperor, would be missed. He was talking about how he intended to carry on his father’s legacy.
Empty words, Rhett thought. Words came so cheaply to Lagonians. They said whatever they thought would serve them best in that moment. In an empire where subterfuge reigned in equal partnership with the emperor, Rhett had long ago learned to recognize the forked tongues in the bejeweled, pressed, and powdered members of the court.
A feeling of dread crept over Rhett as Jaikon continued to make promises to the citizens of Lagonia. As a rule, Rhett didn’t concern himself with court gossip, but last night, Stone had told him there was talk among the councilmen that Jaikon was changing too much too quickly. He was spreading Lagonia’s army too thin—a fact Rhett could personally attest to—and making enemies by disregarding trade agreements ratified by the former emperor.
Rhett could feel that unrest now, simmering beneath the glittering veneer of the councilmembers surrounding him. As deep as Rhett’s loathing for the new Emperor ran, he knew if the whispering and unrest got any worse, it wouldn’t bode well for the empire.
Directly in front of Rhett, a hollow-eyed Extended slave girl was writing down every word of Jaikon’s speech with one hand and painting his portrait with the other. The girl, who didn’t look older than ten or eleven, had shackles on her ankles.
Tiny rainbows shimmered across the slave girl’s opal skin, giving her an effervescent look. Her burnt orange hair and halo of orange around her cornea were the other physical characteristics of all the Extended. Before Lagonia’s immunity was bought by the previous emperor and introduced by the current one, the sight of opal skin and orange hair drove panic into Lagonians. Now, it only sparked their hatred.
The Extended, survivors of opal contagion and their offspring, were carriers of the disease that had ravaged whole continents. All the Extended were gifted—or cursed, depending on one’s perspective—with special abilities. There were common Extensions like Flamers, who could set anything alight just by touching it, and Flooders, who could draw water from any source and direct it anywhere they chose. The common ones weren’t very powerful. They were only able to command small flames and puddles, respectively, and wouldn’t be able to turn their abilities against Lagonia. It was the reason why many of them were slaves in the palace instead of dead by Rhett’s own hand.
Less common Extensions were included in the general group of Extended known as Fighters. The Fighters’ muscles, flexibility, or other similar skill gave them the advantage over any normal opponent. In the last year since Jaikon distributed the immunity and re-opened Lagonia’s borders, it had been Rhett’s task to eradicate any Extended who might be able to threaten Lagonia. Whatever Extended Fighters remained had gone into hiding.
With the enthronement complete, all eyes turned to the executioner’s platform.
Rhett stood beside the Emperor as he listened to the crimes being read against the man kneeling on the platform.
“Do you admit guilt for murdering the prior emperor, Jaikon, Sr., in cold blood?” the executioner asked. His voice was amplified with Insorsil magic.
“I do,” the disgraced councilman said, bowing his head.
A woman and young girl standing at the foot of the platform clutched each other as they wept.
Rhett kept his face blank as a torrent of pity and anger swept through him. Rhett had been the one to come into the throne room at the moment when Jaikon plunged the dagger into the emperor’s chest. Rhett had been too overcome to speak or even move.
“Don’t just stand there,” Jaikon had told him. “Clean this mess up.”
And, with little other choice, he had. Rhett mopped up the blood of the emperor—his own father, even if the emperor had never acknowledged the bastard child of his mistress. When Jaikon had demanded Rhett hand over his own shirt to replace Jaikon’s bloodstained one, Rhett had given it to the half-brother he loathed.
Rhett had been forced to stand by as Jaikon brought in the scapegoat for the murder—a member of the emperor’s council who was universally disliked for his proposition to lower the peasants’ taxes.
Jaikon had taken great pleasure in describing exactly what he’d do to the councilman’s wife and daughter if the man didn’t confess to the murder. The meeting had gone the same way such meetings always went. The councilman had cursed Jaikon and made empty threats. By the end of the meeting, he was weeping and begging. The inevitable conclusion came when the man agreed to every one of Jaikon’s terms.
After, just for appearance’s sake, Jaikon had ordered Stone, the emperor’s Master Interrogator, to torture the man and force a dozen other false confessions from him.
Stone had been Rhett’s guardian until he turned eighteen, and was in effect the only person who had ever treated Rhett like a son.
Rhett’s mother had died in childbirth—a rarity with the abundance of Insorsil magic—and his father, the emperor, had never acknowledged Rhett as anything more than a gifted soldier in his army.
The man on the executioner’s platform stopped mid-confession and looked down at his family.
“I love you,” he said in a choked voice.
The woman and child cried harder, begging the Emperor for mercy.
Rhett kept his muscles relaxed and his face blank. Anyone who looked at him wouldn’t see even a trace of emotion in his eyes. There would be no sign of a clenched fist or tight jaw.
Steel doesn’t know love or despair. It can’t be bent or broken. It needs no heart or warmth. I am steel.
Stone had taught him the mantra when he was a child, and it had been Rhett’s only comfort for as long as he could remember.
The councilman about to die was a stark reminder of why Rhett kept himself aloof from everyone and everything. The woman and child crying below the platform were the reason why Rhett didn’t allow himself to form attachments beyond the loyalties expected between the second-highest-ranking officer and his soldiers.
Jaikon prided himself on finding a person’s weakness and exploiting it. It was a game to him. Rhett knew from years of observation that the game only ever had one winner.
Jaikon had ordered Rhett to be the councilman’s executioner. Rhett had refused. He had no desire to kill a Lagonian in cold blood, especially when he knew firsthand of the man’s innocence. Jaikon would have forced Rhett the same way he bent everyone else to his will, but the Emperor had no leverage over him. It was the only reason Rhett wasn’t standing on the platform now with an axe in his hand. Jaikon had nothing to threaten him with.
Jaikon couldn’t control Rhett, and as deep as the hatred ran between the half-brothers, Jaikon couldn’t kill him. As the best assassin on the continent, Rhett had become a living symbol of the empire’s power and strength. If Jaikon killed him without cause, the councilmen and soldiers would revolt. Jaikon was aware of this fact and was constantly searching for a passable reason to kill Rhett. That Rhett never gave him one made Jaikon’s hatred even stronger.
As the executioner read out the long list of crimes, and the councilman accepted responsibility for each one, Rhett remembered the stickiness of his father’s blood on his hands as he scrubbed the granite floor. He remembered the way Jaikon had laughed as he pulled Rhett’s shirt over his head and sauntered out of the throne room.
Steel doesn’t know love or despair.
The confessions were over. As the executioner raised his axe, Rhett saw Jaikon’s ice blue eyes swivel away from the man about to die. They fixed on him. He felt the weight of the Emperor’s gaze even as he kept his own eyes trained on the execution.
It can’t be bent or broken.
Rhett could almost feel the cogs inside Jaikon’s head turning as he schemed and waited for Rhett to make a mistake. Jaikon wanted a reaction—a twitch of a muscle, the tightening of a fist—anything that would help him find whatever weakness he was certain lurked just beneath the surface. Jaikon would never find it. Rhett would never give Jaikon anything that could be used as leverage to manipulate him. Rhett would never be owned.
It needs no heart or warmth.
Rhett stayed perfectly still, not allowing even the ghost of an emotion to cross his face. After so many years of practice, it was easy to keep the feelings of anger and injustice so deeply buried no one would ever know they were there.
I am steel.
The executioner’s axe fell.
Liss leaned over the warlock at the bar.
The warlock’s emotions were subdued, quieted by the three drinks he’d consumed in a quarter of an hour. Perfect.
“So sorry.” She let just enough of her drink spill onto his shirt. Not so much that he’d be angry, but not too little that she wouldn’t have cause to “help” him out. She let out a little giggle and covered her mouth with her hand as she dabbed at the spill. The warlock gaped openly at her chest, muttering about how she had nothing to apologize for.
She gave him the smile, the one that had literally once brought a man to his knees, as she relieved the warlock of his dragonhide wallet.
Out of the corner of her eye, Liss saw Mari’s small, opal-hued hand appear through the solid oak wall of the bar beneath them. Liss passed her the wallet, all while keeping the warlock’s gaze otherwise occupied, and waited until both girl and wallet had disappeared. No one else in the bar noticed.
Mari was a wisp of a girl, and walking through walls aside, no one ever looked twice at her. The Insorsiled didn’t notice dirty little Extended children, unless it was to call them swine and chase them away.
The Insorsiled, witches and warlocks who lived in this empire, were immune to the disease her people carried in their veins. But it didn’t stop them from discriminating against the Extended, regardless. The Insorsiled saw her people as inferior because their power came from a mutated disease; the Insorsiled possessed true magic.
Liss slipped her hand inside the warlock’s jacket as she continued to dab at the spill, sensing for any change in his emotions that would warn her he’d noticed her thievery. His soul was placid. No, wait…she froze with her hand curled around his pocket watch. His emotions were changing. He felt interest and longing.
Liss could never know for certain the reason why someone was feeling the emotions she sensed, but she’d be willing to bet the ruby-encrusted ring she’d just neatly removed from the warlock’s pinky finger that she was the target of his emotions.
Liss said her final apologies and turned to go. The warlock grabbed her wrist and leaned into her. His long, greasy hair brushed against her as his eyes fixated on her chest.
“I’ll brew you a potion to give you sweet dreams for a year if you spend an hour with me.”
“No, thank you,” Liss replied, keeping her voice light.
The warlock’s emotions shifted again. This time, they turned more sinister. There was intrigue and desire, and something like possessiveness. His soul felt slimy, dirty, and Liss wanted nothing more to do with it. She tried to slip out of the warlock’s grasp, but he only tightened his hold.
This bar was one of Liss’s best thieving spots in all of Insorsil, so she couldn’t afford to make a scene. Instead, she leaned back and caught the eye of the boy sitting two stools down. Spence didn’t even glance at her as he hopped off his stool and stumbled over to them.
“Whoops.” Spence lurched, grabbing the warlock’s arm to steady himself.
“Extended swine,” the warlock mumbled as his hand fell away from Liss.
Spence released his hold, and the warlock slumped against the bar. He was snoring.
Liss and Spence didn’t acknowledge each other as he returned to his stool. For calling Spence swine, Liss took the warlock’s gold bracelet. It wasn’t worth much, but it was engraved, which meant it was sentimental. She wasn’t usually petty about her stealing, but she could make exceptions for people who well and truly deserved a good fleecing.
As she sauntered toward the exit, Liss felt self-consciousness and insecurity radiating off the soul of a witch sitting alone at a large table. Liss could feel unhappiness clutching at the witch’s soul.
Liss had no patience for people who were dissatisfied with their lot in life but refused to do anything to change it. It was Liss’s greatest frustration with her own people. They resented the way they were treated, and yet they feared to do anything to improve their bleak lives. It was one of the reasons why Liss took pleasure in stealing from Lagonia soldiers. She wasn’t a fighting Extended, but that didn’t mean she was defenseless against her oppressors.
Even though she’d much rather be able to kill them than just steal their correspondences and jewels, at least she was doing something. Liss couldn’t abide the Extended who spent their nights huddled around their tiny cookstoves bemoaning their lot in life.
Liss went over to the witch’s table and leaned over the woman, who was staring dismally into her purple, frothing drink.
“You have a lovely necklace,” Liss told the witch. “I do love sapphires.”
“Well thank you, thank you very much.” The witch’s delight came off her soul in a rush. “It’s just a little trinket. I have so many others, I couldn’t decide what to wear today.” The witch gave a breathy little laugh.
Liss’s Extension was soul sorting, which meant she could sense any emotion a person was feeling. She wasn’t as good at detecting lies as Truthseers, but she could often identify when the words that came out of a person’s mouth didn’t match the emotions written across their soul. It was a convenient talent for her line of work. It helped her pick out targets who were ripe for thievery, like the warlock whose emotions were dampened from intoxication, and this witch who was desperate for attention.
Soul sorting was how she’d learned that dishonestly was the one trait that was consistent across Lagonians, Insorsiled, and Extended.
Soul Sorters were rare, especially since the Lagonia emperor had deemed it a “dangerous” Extension and had set his Chief Assassin on murdering all of them. Liss had only ever met one other Soul Sorter. He was a second-generation Extended man in his fifties, and he’d been found dead in his wagon more than a year ago. His slit throat had marked him as one of the Lagonia Chief Assassin’s victims.
The Viper, Caravan Butcher, Extended Eraser, Opal Slayer…Lagonia’s Chief Assassin was known by many names. All he ever left behind were slit throats and whispers about his brutality. No Extended had ever seen his face; any who got close enough ended up with their throats cut. She’d once heard the man drank his victims’ blood and wore a necklace with all of their teeth.
Liss hoped the weight of all those teeth would snap the Viper’s neck.
She took the witch’s hand, introducing herself as she slipped the ring from the witch’s finger.
Long years of practice had taught Liss exactly what to say and do to divert attention from what she was stealing. In all the time she’d been a thief, Liss had never even come close to getting caught.
Of course, it wasn’t just her Extension that made her so good at what she did. Liss was pretty—pretty in a way that made shallow women want to impress her, and drew men to her like she was some kind of walking, breathing love potion.
Even though she was Extended, her wavy brown hair, blue eyes, and boringly pale skin that didn’t have even a hint of opal sheen made her look Lagonian.
Liss’s father had been Uninfected. He was a Lagonia merchant, and he’d fallen in love with her Extended mother. The only reason he hadn’t succumbed to the disease she carried was because of a kind of Insorsiled magic that no legitimate witchdoctor practiced for good reason.
Liss had been the product of her parents’ love. She had an ability like all Extended, but she didn’t look like them. As far as she knew…as far as anyone in her caravan knew…she was the only Extended who didn’t have the looks to match.
It set her apart from her own people, but her appearance guaranteed no Lagonian or Insorsiled ever suspected she was Extended.
The witch, still smiling at the attention, offered to buy Liss a drink. Graciously refusing, Liss backtracked toward the door. When the witch turned back to her drink, Liss tucked the sapphire necklace into her pocket.
The door swung shut behind her, and the black-and-neon sign that read “Toil and Trouble” settled back against the wood.
So far, it had been a productive afternoon. Not even counting whatever was inside the warlock’s wallet, she and the kids had stolen enough to barter for the caravan’s supplies for the next week. She’d trade in the necklace for more gold, which would buy grain, eggs, salted meat, bottled water, and of course, her mother’s medicine. She might even have enough spare gold to get some Insorsiled magic to amuse the kids.
As long as she did the purchasing, instead of Spence, Mari, or little Jema, none of the Insorsil shop owners would charge her the gouged Extended prices. It was infuriating, but the Insorsiled discriminated against her people by charging a far higher price for Extended customers. The Insorsiled were immune to all illnesses that plagued non-magic people, including opal contagion, but it didn’t stop them from treating her people like dirt under their expensive dragonhide boots.
Because the Extended were barred from the other non-magic empires for fear of the contagion, her people’s only option for goods and supplies was from Insorsil. It wasn’t like the Extended could take their business elsewhere, and the Insorsiled loved taking advantage of their desperate situation.
It was one of the many reasons why Liss had no qualms about stealing from them. The way she saw it, the Insorsiled stole from her people every day. She was just returning the favor.
Liss stepped out into the busy alley, pressing herself against a shop door to avoid an Insorsiled bike that zoomed past.
Liss waved away a witch who held up a crystal ball—a fake, no doubt. She shook her head at a warlock selling charms to extend one’s life—definitely fake. There were other tents with displays of potions to bring luck in love, bones that could cure any minor ailment, and all manner of self-propelled flying objects.
There were Insorsiled who could do real magic, like the witchdoctors. But if there were any who could actually extend life or alter luck, they weren’t offering it for three ounces of gold.
Most of the shops on this street bore the ugly “No Extended” sign. It alternately amused and disgusted Liss that she could go places the rest of her people couldn’t, just because she looked “normal.” Whatever that meant….
There were many theories behind the cause of the shimmery opal skin that made the Extended so easy to identify. Religious people called it the mark of the devil. Scientists said it was a genetic mutation. The Insorsiled called it a blight. Liss thought it was beautiful.
She never tired of seeing the play of light on her mother’s skin, or Jema’s burnt orange hair whipping in the wind, or the orange glow of Spence’s eyes when they told stories in his wagon late at night. Liss sometimes wished she looked like the rest of the Extended, even if her unique parentage was more useful to her caravan than any of their Extensions.
Liss went into a shop with a “No swine, Uninfected Only” sign plastered over the front. She swallowed her anger, telling herself she’d take the man for all he was worth for his bigotry.
“I just don’t understand why they keep coming ’round here to bother us,” the shopkeeper was complaining to the witch at the counter. “Why don’t the swine just build a farm or something? Live off the fat of the land, so to speak. Why they wheel around in those ridiculous wagons is beyond me.”
Liss bit her lip until she tasted blood. There was good reason why her people lived the way they did, even if this warlock was too ignorant to know it.
Ever since the outbreak of the contagion, any person with opal skin was banned from every place where people susceptible to the disease lived. At first, some of the Extended had kept pathetic farms in the desert, but they were vulnerable to wild animals and even wilder humans who dared to attack them.
The Extended had realized early on that, if they hoped to survive, they would need to adapt. They split up into caravans and lived in wagons that stayed in one place for only a day or two at a time. It gave them some degree of safety, but it made it impossible for the Extended to provide for themselves.
Forcing her attention back on her task, Liss looked around the shop for what she should steal. The vault behind the counter was tempting, but it would be easier to empty that later with Spence’s help. For now, she focused on the jewel-encrusted dagger hanging from the warlock’s belt.
The decorative weapon, which Liss felt confident the warlock wouldn’t know how to use if his life depended on it, could be traded for enough gold to purchase her caravan’s food for weeks.
She stepped up to the counter when it was her turn to haggle with the warlock. Jema, the youngest of Liss’s thieving crew, slipped into the shop as the previous patron exited.
Jema was a nine-year-old girl whose Extension gave her the ability to compress her entire body into a sphere the size of Liss’s fist. By folding her arms around her chest and tucking in her chin, her entire body shrunk and rolled in on itself. She used her miniature feet and hands to roll herself wherever she wanted to go. Unless someone was looking down at the ground, no one would notice her in this form.
The warlock standing behind the counter certainly wasn’t paying attention to anything except for the jewels he was loading into the vault behind him.
Liss dropped the sapphire necklace onto the counter. While the warlock’s gaze and emotions were consumed with the necklace, she snatched the dagger from his belt.
She hid the weapon behind her back and then let it drop handle-first. Before it could hit the wooden floor, it connected with Jema’s sphere and stared to compress. It was like the metal had turned to clay. The handle rolled in on the blade until the whole thing was a tight little spiral. Then, with a barely-audible pop, it was sucked into the little sphere that was Jema. Without another sound, Jema rolled out the door just as it opened for a witch to enter.
As soon as she was out on the street, Jema would find an alley out of sight, and then the little ball would unravel to reveal a normal-sized nine-year-old girl in its place.
Between Mari and Jema, there wasn’t a house or shop in all of Insorsil that was off limits to their little thieving crew.
A few minutes later, Liss left the shop with her purse stuffed full of gold nuggets. She counted out the amount for her mother’s medicine, and then paid two pixies to deliver the gold to the witchdoctor who made her mother’s brew. She and the witchdoctor had worked out an agreement years ago, so that no matter where on the continent Liss’s caravan was, her mother would still get her medicine.
Liss mentally calculated how much she’d have left after buying the caravan’s necessities. Burk, her caravan leader, would want her to save the extra gold for next week when they moved away from Insorsil and deeper into the country, but what Burk didn’t know wouldn’t hurt him. The kids hadn’t gotten any magical toys or candy in weeks. They deserved a treat.
She knew what each of them liked. Spence would want the green rock crystals that tasted so sour even the thought of them made Liss’s mouth pucker. The less potent of the rock crystals made smoke come out of one’s ears, while the strongest ones could levitate a skinny person a few inches off the ground. Mari favored a potion that made her opal skin disappear…at least for a few minutes. It was expensive and fleeting, but Mari so desperately longed to look like the Uninfected.
And Jema just wanted candy. Lots and lots of candy. Liss would have to hide a few pieces for herself and the other kids, or Jema would eat all of it.
The kids had been helping Liss in her thieving for the last year, and she felt a certain amount of responsibility for their happiness and welfare.
Spence, the oldest of the kids who served on Liss’s thieving crew at fourteen, was growing into a lanky and somber boy. His head was a tangled mop of burnt orange, which he refused to cut because his mom had always been the one to style his hair. She’d been stabbed during a run-in with drunk Lagonia soldiers two years ago. The wound hadn’t been fatal and the Insorsiled could have healed her easily, but they’d left her body in the cobbled street where she’d bled out during the night. Two days had passed before Burk heard news of her death to share with Spence and the rest of his family.
Mari, a rail-thin girl who looked younger than her eleven years, had the prettiest opal skin Liss had ever seen. Her burnt orange hair fell in tight ringlets down her back and was the envy of every Extended girl in the caravan. She used to be a giggling, bubbly child. But a year ago, slavers took both her parents and they were never heard from again. Mari didn’t laugh much anymore.
Jema, the youngest of their crew at nine years of age, hadn’t yet lost all of her innocence. Her parents were both still alive, but they were Energizers, which meant they worked all night long to power the caravan’s wagons. They slept during the day, and Jema barely ever saw them. Jema had taken to tottering around after Liss even when they weren’t out thieving. Liss didn’t mind, especially since Jema’s chattering broke up the silence that filled her wagon otherwise.
Spence, Mari, and Jema’s stories weren’t unique. Their loss was echoed in caravans all throughout the land. It was the story of the Lagonians’ cruelty and the Insorsiled people’s discrimination.
Liss was making her way back through the crowded street when a disturbance outside Toil and Trouble caught her attention. Liss felt the hatred, anger, and disgust radiating off the souls of the men gathered outside the bar. Not just men…Lagonia soldiers. They wore the black-and-gold armor that Liss hated more than any other sight.
She would have ducked down another alley to avoid the soldiers, but Spence was still at the bar. Whatever was happening outside Toil and Trouble, the dark emotions coming off the soldiers’ souls didn’t bode well for any Extended nearby.
When she saw the flash of orange hair in the midst of the circle of soldiers, Liss started to run.
Spence limped out of the circle, his face bloody, as the soldiers threw tankards and shouted insults of swine in his wake. Liss caught up to him, ignoring the whistling and catcalls. She helped Spence into an abandoned corner between two shops.
“What happened?” Liss demanded. “What did they do to you?” She was already thinking about which Insorsiled medicines would make Spence’s pain—at least his physical pain—disappear within the hour. She felt the hurt, fear, and anger radiating off Spence’s soul. Her own emotions rose to match as he told her about how the soldiers had grabbed him from the bar and beat him for the simple crime of being Extended.
Liss wrapped her arms around Spence and squeezed him. Spence was at the age where he thought he was too old for affection of any kind, but if she let go of him, she’d go kill every one of those soldiers. And then she’d have to suffer through yet another of Burk’s lectures about how her impulsivity and recklessness put their caravan in danger.
“Spence!” Mari appeared through the solid stone wall of a shop and crouched beside Liss.
Jema came next, her chin wobbling when she caught sight of Spence. “What happened, Lissy?” she asked, her orange-rimmed eyes huge.
“They call us the swine,” Spence mumbled, pressing a hand to his swollen lip.
There was fear and confusion rising from the kids’ souls.
“I don’t get why they do this.” Mari gestured at Spence’s bloody face. “Opal contagion doesn’t kill Lagonians anymore. Why do they still hate us?”
Liss didn’t have a good answer to that.
Caravans that could scrape together enough gold paid a monthly tax to Lagonia’s Emperor, which made them more or less off-limits to the slavers who roamed the countryside. But the tax didn’t keep the Extended safe when they encountered a vicious Lagonia soldier in an Insorsil bar, or when the Chief Assassin decided one of them was a threat to the empire.
“I wish someone would figure out what was giving the Lagonians their immunity,” Spence said. “I’d go there and destroy it. And then I’d infect every last one of them.”
Liss couldn’t agree more. The mysterious immunity that allowed Lagonians to come into contact with Extended, without getting the contagion, also enabled slavers and soldiers to terrorize her people without consequences.
Spence looked at Liss. There was hatred in his soul, and she didn’t blame him. She felt it, too.
“They said if a slaver showed up and took me away, they wouldn’t do anything to stop it,” Spence said.
Liss stood up. Her blood was boiling.
“Jema, get Spence some quick-heal,” she said, handing her purse to the little girl. It was an effort to keep her voice calm, but somehow, she managed it. “There’s a witchdoctor on the corner of Bashwell and Honey Pot that serves Extended. Spence’ll also need numbing crystals and an Insorsiled bandage for the cut on his leg.”
Liss shoved the list of the caravan’s supplies back into her pocket. Those could wait.
She turned to Mari. “Stay with Spence. I’ll meet you all back at the caravan.”
Liss made her way back down the street, keeping a slight distance from the soldiers as she followed them. She read the emotions playing across their souls as her own anger and hatred simmered deep inside her.
There was one soldier whose soul was filled with self-importance and arrogance. He kept moving his hand to the breast pocket of his overcoat, and then feeling satisfied at whatever he felt.
Liss slipped between two warlocks haggling over a foul-smelling brew. Turning so her face was hidden from both of them, she shoulder-bumped the one on the right. With a curse, he stumbled into the soldier.
The soldier whipped around. Liss ducked behind the other warlock, using his body to block her from view.
“What in the—”
“My apologies, good sir,” the warlock said.
Liss slipped around so she was standing just behind the soldier and could reach into his pocket.
“You should watch your step, warlock. I’m an emissary of the Emperor himself,” the soldier replied.
“Can I offer you something for your troubles? I’m rather gifted with strength spells,” the warlock offered.
Right, Liss thought, stopping herself before she rolled her eyes.
Everyone with a brain knew strength spells were just illusion, and bad illusion at that. But Lagonians’ fascination with magic, coupled with their simple minds, made them easy targets for any of the Insorsiled who had the stomach to haggle with them.
“You don’t say?”
The soldier allowed the warlock to steer him away from his companions and toward a shop at the end of the alley.
Smiling to herself, Liss tucked the thick envelope she’d stolen under her arm and hurried in the opposite direction.
Rhett pushed through the gaggle of courtiers and advisors milling around the throne room.
They were wearing the latest fashions from across the sea and playing with the newest magical toys out of Insorsil. The councilmen were applauding the Emperor’s most recent trade deals, even as they schemed about how to undermine the agreements to weaken Jaikon’s position and strengthen their own.
Boredom, and too much money and security, made Lagonians the type of people who would smile to your face and then shove a dagger in your back.
Rhett loathed the politics of court and avoided them like opal contagion.
“More taxes from the Extended would give the Emperor’s coffers better padding,” one councilman was saying to another. “I, for one, think the army should be sent to track down those wagons and squeeze the swine for all they’re worth.”
Only a lifetime of training to keep his face impassive kept Rhett from rolling his eyes. If these courtiers were less ignorant, they’d know the Extended didn’t have anything else that could be squeezed from them. But the concept of poverty was as foreign to most Lagonians as the notion that the casualties in the Emperor’s popular trade wars included their own countrymen. Rhett had fought in those wars…watched friends and soldiers under his command die in them.
Ciago, one of the only people Rhett called a friend, touched his elbow. “Emperor wants to see you in his private quarters.”
Rhett could read Ciago’s every expression, and the look on his friend’s face immediately put him on guard. Without a word, Rhett left the throne room and strode through a hall paneled with black diamond mirrors. He nodded in greeting to the men and women standing guard in the hallway.
Rhett knocked, and then he opened the gold-plated door to the Emperor’s bedchamber. It was a strange place to be meeting, but as soon as Rhett stepped into the room, he understood the Emperor’s game.
Jaikon was reclining against the headboard and was clad only in a night robe. A woman was limping across the main part of the chamber. There was blood at the corner of her mouth and her eye was already swelling.
Rhett’s fists wanted to clench, but Jaikon would notice even that slight reaction and use it to his advantage. Rhett forced his posture to stay relaxed and his face to remain blank. He fixed his steady, expressionless gaze on the Emperor.
I am steel.
“Ah, Rhetteman. Come forward.” The Emperor’s gaze scrutinized him. He wanted Rhett to react, to show some emotion, to prove he cared.
It was a deadly game, one Jaikon had been baiting him with since they were kids. Even then, Jaikon had been a master at unearthing people’s weaknesses and exploiting them. Rhett would never give the Emperor that kind of power over him.
It can’t be bent or broken.
The woman stumbled as she passed Rhett. He reached out a hand to steady her but didn’t spare her a glance.
It needs no heart or warmth.
“You know you are welcome to any woman in my harem,” Jaikon said pleasantly as the door shut, leaving them alone. “There are some real beauties among them.”
“I’m not interested in your women.” Rhett kept his voice cold and neutral.
“I knew you’d say that,” Jaikon said, dismissing the subject with a careless wave of his hand. “There’s been some ugliness along the slavers’ routes. I need you to round up the slaves and kill the ones who are holding up trade.”
“I’m not a slaver,” Rhett replied.
“Why must you always be so difficult?” Jaikon crossed his arms. “Are you refusing to carry out my order?”
Jaikon let out a low, dangerous laugh. “I knew you’d say that, too. You’re so boring and predictable.”
Untouchable, you mean.
Jaikon raised one blonde eyebrow. “You do realize the irony of having a code of honor when you’re Lagonia’s Chief Assassin, don’t you?”
Rhett ignored the barb. “Is there anything else…anything that falls within the bounds of my appointed role?”
Jaikon’s ice blue eyes narrowed. Rhett had seen men falter under the scrutiny of that gaze. Rhett didn’t blink.
“I will find your weakness,” Jaikon said in a voice so soft it was barely audible. “Someday, there will be something or someone you care about. And when I discover what it is, any shreds of free will you thought you had will be nothing more than a memory.”
“I have no weaknesses,” Rhett replied. “I care for nothing except my duty and Lagonia’s soldiers.”
Jaikon offered a crocodile grin as his only response.
Most of the time, Rhett tried to forget he and the Emperor shared the same father. They’d never in their lives acknowledged each other as half-brothers, even though they’d grown up in the palace together. They didn’t even look alike. Jaikon had the light complexion and softer features of his mother, while Rhett looked like the former Emperor.
At twenty-one, Jaikon was only a year Rhett’s senior, but he looked much older. It was probably the beard.
For as much as Rhett tried to forget about the blood they shared, Jaikon couldn’t look at Rhett without seeing his undeniable resemblance to their dead father. He had the same dark hair and eyes. He was even built like their father, dwarfing every man around save Wilsean and Ciago. Their likeness made it impossible for anyone in the palace to forget whose son Rhett was, which made his situation even more perilous.
Jaikon hated Rhett all the more because of the blood they shared. The feeling was mutual, although Rhett didn’t have the luxury of showing it. Jaikon would have had Rhett killed years ago if it hadn’t been for the simple fact that he couldn’t…not unless he wanted to turn every soldier and councilmember in the empire against him. Even the Emperor had his limitations, and killing the second-most-powerful man in Lagonia without cause would incite a rebellion. Members of the council were looking for any excuse to strip Jaikon’s power, just like Jaikon was looking for any excuse to have Rhett killed.
Stone had turned Rhett into the single most lethal person on the continent. Probably on any continent. Rhett’s entire life had been an exercise in becoming invaluable to the Emperor so his life would be safe, or at least, as safe as it could be given the nature of his position.
“Is there anything else you wish me to do?” Rhett asked. Besides see how you beat your women and listen to your threats….
“Yes.” Jaikon was still giving him that appraising look. “The Extended spy has struck again. This time, he stole slave routes from one of my emissaries.”
Clever man. The emissaries weren’t known for their intelligence, but they were careful and suspicious as a rule.
“I want you to find the spy and dispose of him,” Jaikon continued.
“What can you tell me about him?” Rhett asked.
“Very little.” Jaikon shrugged. “The emissary believes his papers were stolen outside a bar in northwest Insorsil.”
There were no fewer than a hundred bars in northwest Insorsil.
“Any idea which bar? Did the emissary get a look at the man?”
“Toil and Trouble, and no,” Jaikon replied. A look of irritation crossed his face. “Some are calling the spy Opal Smoke. It’s believed his Extension is invisibility or turning into vapor.”
Rhett nodded. He’d heard the rumors, too.
“I want him dead, Rhetteman. I expect you’ll have this mess cleaned up as soon as possible.” The emperor smiled. “You’ve always been good at cleaning up messes.”
Rhett tamped down his rage before it showed on his face. He felt the slickness of his father’s blood covering the marble floor and soaking through his pants.
“Bring me his head,” the Emperor said. “I fear this Extended spy is after our greatest secret. I’ll have every Extended slaughtered before it’s revealed.”
Rhett didn’t doubt the Emperor’s words. If the Extended discovered their secret and destroyed their immunity, there would be countless deaths.
“It will be done, Your Majesty.” Rhett turned and strode toward the door.
“Oh, and Rhetteman.”
Rhett turned back, waiting.
“Every man has a weakness. And I promise you, I’ll find yours.”
Rhett left the room with Jaikon’s soft laughter ringing in his ears.